The departure of Kyrie Irving may have dominated headlines over the summer, but the loss of Al Horford could prove to be more troublesome for the Boston Celtics.
Despite Irving’s defection to the Brooklyn Nets, the Celtics were quick to land a suitable replacement in Kemba Walker. When it comes to Boston’s depth at the center position, however, the outlook is much more fraught.
Horford was a malleable big man who could seamlessly transition between power forward and center. There’s no clear replacement for what he brought to the Celtics as a passing hub and occasional leading scorer who could also quarterback the defense and hold his own against the league’s best bigs (not to mention play phenomenal switching defense against its premier guards). In addition to the loss of Horford, the Celtics traded away Australian bruiser Aron Baynes on draft night.
That’s not to say the Celtics are doomed at center, however. Enes Kanter, Daniel Theis and Vincent Poirier will likely play the bulk of the minutes at the five, but there are also a few youthful options in head coach Brad Stevens’ back pocket.
Boston has a strong backcourt pairing in Walker and Marcus Smart combined with a stable of talented, lengthy wings. Their guards and wings can match up with any team in the NBA. They’ll help control the point of attack and mitigate some of the concerns about rim protection and perimeter coverage.
However, the Eastern Conference, (and especially the Atlantic Division), is home to plenty of dangerous big men who will test Boston’s depth inside.
The departed Horford will be playing a lot of power forward with the Philadelphia 76ers, but that’s only because he’ll be alongside one of the best centers in the league, Joel Embiid. The New York Knicks have a talented young pairing with Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson inside. And we can’t forget about Marc Gasol and the defending champion Toronto Raptors up north.
Boston’s center rotation doesn’t carry much flash, but they must prove to be a trio of reliable options next season. How that unit holds up could be the difference between a first-round flameout or a deep run in the playoffs.
Enes Kanter is far from a perfect player. He’s a slow-footed defender who opponents often seek out in mismatches. Also, he can’t shoot from outside 15 feet, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever develop a credible three-point stroke at this stage in his career.
Kanter has become an easy target for criticism after a few dreadful playoff series for the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference. Teams like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors hunt mismatches and punish the immobile big man—whose issues often come from horrendous stance and positioning more than lack of athleticism.
Yet, for all his foibles, Kanter is the easy choice to start at center and garner the lion’s share of minutes at the position. The 6-foot-11 big man does two things at an elite level: score and rebound.
Opposing teams can punish Kanter on the pick-and-roll by going small, but he can return the favor by bullying small-ball lineups inside. The Warriors ran Kanter off the floor during the Western Conference Finals, but the big man was a key part of Portland’s success in the first two rounds.
There’s no possible way for Kanter to replace Horford, but he is strong enough offensively to carve out his own important niche in Boston, provided there’s plenty of defensive backup around him. As long as he’s crashing the offensive glass and scoring, Kanter will have a major role going forward.
The Celtics understand who Daniel Theis is at this point in his career. At 6-foot-8, he’s a bit undersized but still defends bigger opponents with vigor.
On offense, the German stretches defenses with his shooting. Theis isn’t a high-volume three-point shooter, but he’s connected on 44 of his 125 career attempts from behind the arc. That’s something no other big on the depth chart brings to the floor for Boston.
In many ways, think of him as the antithesis to Kanter: Theis will battle on defense while providing offensive spacing, albeit at a fraction of the athleticism and stat-stuffing the Turkish center offers. Alternating between the two based on matchup is likely the way to go, though one wonders whether their incomplete games will sometimes be a chicken-or-the-egg detriment.
Continuity is another advantage Theis possesses. He’s entering his third year with the Celtics, and his familiarity with the system should give him an edge on the backup role early in the season.
That being said, it’s notable that the Celtics were in no hurry to re-sign him this past offseason. It was only after they traded Baynes and lost Horford that the team decided to bring back the restricted free agent.
This 7-foot rookie from France is an imposing presence who brings a physical style of play to both ends of the court.
Vincent Poirier is a solid defender in drop coverage on the pick-and-roll, so Stevens will likely turn to him when he needs a formidable presence in the paint that the undersized Theis just can’t provide. Poirier is not overly quick and can fall victim to mismatches from time to time, but against centers like Embiid and Gasol, he is the best counter currently at Stevens’ disposal.
He’s no slouch on the offensive end either. In 34 EuroLeague games for Kirolbet Baskonia last season, Poirier averaged 11.9 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. What’s even more impressive is that 3.4 of those rebounds were offensive boards.
Although growing pains are always a risk for a rookie adjusting to the NBA, Poirier has a major opportunity to stake his claim on the backup center minutes.
Theis may have the initial edge, but expect the Frenchman to become a major contributor for Boston at some point next season.
The Up-And-Coming Youth
General manager Danny Ainge knew he was taking on a project when he drafted Robert Williams in 2018. The supremely talented shot-blocker only played 283 minutes total during his rookie season, with the rest of it spent in the G-League.
While he’ll definitely play more in his second campaign, it’s hard to envision him becoming a mainstay in the rotation just yet. Williams has a bright future with the Celtics and could someday develop into a starting-caliber center, but he’s still too raw for major minutes at this stage in his career. Still, all the physical tools and athleticism are there in spades, should he put it all together.
In addition to Robert Williams, Boston has a few young names who could creep into the conversation at the five. Semi Ojeleye, 24, represents an option for Stevens if he wants to go with a smaller lineup. Ojeleye is only 6-foot-7, but his strong base and willingness to shoot the three can provide a different look.
Incoming rookie Grant Williams, 20, is another potential small-ball option if the Celtics are willing to think outside the box. The 6-foot-7 is a natural power forward who might not be ready to cover opposing centers, but he could be a high-energy plug in a pinch.
After signing an Exhibit 10 contract, Tacko Fall is likely destined for a season in the G League, but at 7-foot-7, the 23-year-old is the very definition of a giant even by NBA standards. Simply by existing on the court, he can clog up the paint. He’s far from a finished product, but he’s one or two injuries away from being thrust into a supporting role.
Horford left a gigantic hole in the frontcourt that can’t be plugged by one player. Instead, Stevens will have to rely on a rotation of centers that brings plenty of uncertainty.
But if he can push the right buttons at the five this season, the Celtics are going to make some noise in the Eastern Conference.